Day 3: Sightseeing morning - Joining the crowds
1. Ayasofya - be sure to look back as you leave
4. Basilica cistern
5. Time for lunch
This was the day for some conventional sightseeing, first of all joining the crowds that throng the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque from first thing in the morning until early evening. There's no getting away from the crowd when you come to these magnificant buildings, but there's no leaving Istanbul without spending time in both of them so the best thing to do is get up early and at least stand a chance of being ahead of some of the hordes. If there are cruise ships in port the numbers swell enormously as they disgorge their passengers for what is often just a single day in the city.
The Blue Mosque - more correctly the Sultan Ahmet Camii (now you know from where this part of the city gets its name) - is renowned all over the world. Whilst not the work of Sinan, the greatest Ottoman architect, it is certainly the city's most famous mosque, the grandeur of its exterior with dome piled upon dome and six minarets matched by the splendour of its interior, a dazzling mix of tiles, marble, stained glass and exquisite painted patterns in the domes.
Splendid as the Blue Mosque is, it's the building facing it across the gardens of Sultanhamet Square, that I return to again and again. Ayasofya - the Church of Holy Wisdom - over 1000 years older than the Blue Mosque and all but a handful of other buildings in the city, what an amazing building this is and what an extraordinary history it has. 900 years a church, 500 years a mosque, now its a museum and to truly see and appreciate it all will take much, much longer than 45 minutes to an hour that most visitors seem to allow themselves. Not everyone's a Byzantium-junkie like me though, so take your visit in your time and just be glad that, after years of restoration work, the scaffolding that filled large sections of the vast nave has at last been removed and this magnificent place can at last be seen in all its glory. Be sure to make your way to the upper galleries and don't leave without looking back at the mosaic over the exit. You'll see its mirrored image facing you as walk towards the door - the Emperors Constantine and Justinian flanking the Virgin and Child - in Constantine's hands his gift of the city, in Justinian's the great church he built to honour them.
Time for a tea break - the cafe in the Ayasofya courtyard is a good place for that - then on , up the road a little to Justinian's other great bequest to the city - and the tourist's photo collection - the Basilica Cistern. Hundreds of 8 metre columns disappear into the gloom in long rows that support an intricately vaulted ceiling while wooden walkways allow visitors to walk above the watery floor. This is just one of dozens of cisterns still to be found in the city, but
none of the others are like this. Everyone makes for the huge Medusa heads that form the base of two of the columns, look around and you'll see other evidence of Byzantine recycling at work. if you haven't already had a tea break, maybe you'd like to take one here. Nowhere in Istanbul are you far from a cafe and sure enough, there's one here too.
By now it's lunchtime, the trams are packed with workers taking their break, so we decide we'll follow the tramline down the hill towards the main station. We're heading for the Galata Bridge, but first we'll stop for lunch at the place near the bottom of the hill we've eaten at on previous visits to Istanbul - one of those places where women are rolling out impossibly thin dough circles to be filled with spinach, cheese , potato and other good things - gozleme. It may look touristy but it's full of locals and a tasty gozleme and glass of fresh lemon juice are just the thing for lunch.Related to:
- Historical Travel
Day 4: Istanbul - Fener and Fatih
1. Church of St Saviour Pantepoptes
2 and 3. Fatih street scenes
4. Church of Constantine Lips
5. The Prince's Mosque
The fourth day of our stay in Istanbul found us setting out to find our way to as many of the remaining Byzantine churches as we could in the areas known as Fener and Fatih. Only one of them is still used at a church today, the others were all converted to mosques long ago but their Byzantine origins are clear to see. Take away the minarets that stand beside them and their external appearance is pure Byzantine. Step inside and although the Christian imagery and furnishings that once filled them has been replaced by the mihrab, minbar and abstract patterns of Islamic decoration, their layout is unmistakeably that of a church.
You can find more detailed reviews of the places we visited on this day in the Off The Beaten Path and Things to Do tips on my Istanbul pages. Here in these Turkey pages, is a brief resume of all the places we saw in a long day of walking and some practical notes should anyone be interested to follow in our footsteps. As well as the ancient churches-turned-mosques that were our particular interest, we visited two of the city's major Ottoman mosques, the Fatih, where Mehmet the Conqueror lies entombed and the Prince's Mosque - the work of the great Sinan - and some other points of interest along the way. Altogether, it took us about six hours, with stops for lunch and tea along the way.
We started by taking a taxi to Ataturk Bulvari, getting the driver to drop us at Itfaiye Cadessi. On the hill above us stood the Church of the Monastery of the Pantocrator, once one of the city's most important and impressive religious complexes. What we hadn't realized is that it is currently undergoing major restoration, there was no way we could gain even a peek behind the screening and scaffolding. Disappointing but it does give us a reason to return to Istanbul one day (as if we need a reason!)
Armed with a map, the book "Walking Through Byzantium" we'd purchased the day before, and directions from one of the site workers we found our way to the nearby 10th century Church of St. Saviour Pantepoptes (Eski Imaret Camii) - the only Byzantine church that still has red tiles covering its dome, and then on to the 11th century Church of St Theodosia ( Gül (Rose) Camii).
The Fatih Mosque and tomb of Mehmet was our next stop. Mehmet the Conqueror, the man who finally took Constantinople from the Byzantines in 1453; his tomb is greatly venerated and visiting here will find you joining pilgrims and supplicants from all over Turkey.
It was time for lunch - a big plate of vegetable stew and rice in a cafe near the Fatih Mosque, a cold drink and tea (of course) to finish. Just the thing to set us up to continue our walk.
The Church of St Constantine Lips ( Fenari Isa Camii) was actually two churches - as can be seen by its twin domes - one dating from the 10th century, the other from the 13th. On conversion to a mosque just 50 years after the conquest, its new name "Isa" translates as "Jesus".
After brief stops at the Marcian Column (a sawn-off version of the much more impressive Constantine's Column over in Sultanhamet) and the Valens Aqueduct, we found ourselves outside Vefa Bozacisi, an Istanbul institution that has been serving an Ottoman beverage boza for over 100 years. Made from fermented millet, it wasn't my taste, but MrL drank it and proclaimed it "interesting".
Two more churches and a mosque and we were ready to call it a day. First the 12th century Church of St Theodore (Kilise Camii - "kilise"/church, "camii"/mosque), the Princes' Mosque, built to the memory of Suleyman the Magnificent's eldest son by his beloved wife, Roxelana who died of smallpox when he was just 21, and finally the Church of Theotokos Kyriotissa (Kalenderhane Camii) built and rebuilt between the 6th and 12th centuries.
By now, footsore, hot and tired, we were ready to grab a cab and head back to our hotel. Hardly had we moved off though when we hit a huge snarl of traffic that was going nowhere fast. We inched along a way and then our taxi driver turned down a side street and said 'Go down there, the metro's at the end and you'll be back at your hotel in a few minutes. No charge."
This had been a fascinating day that had taken us along many back streets and across main roads, past cemeteries with their Ottoman headstones, up and down streets of both beautifully restored and ruinous wooden houses, corner shops and vine-hung squares. We'd provided amusement for children and had been given directions by bemused locals, been made to feel particularly welcome by the old men in the courtyard at the little Eski Imaret Camii and in all the time we were doing this the only other tourists we saw were a few at Mehmet's tomb and a lone, elderly Canadian at the Prince's Mosque.
Although our interest is largely historical and architectural, we were very aware that these buildings are functioning mosques. Provided you don't go at prayer time, you may visit any of them. Women visitors should keep a scarf in their bag to put on when entering and all the usual courtesies due to a place of worship should be shown.
If you take a taxi to find any of these buildings, or ask directions in the street, be sure to use the mosque (camii) name, not the original one of the church, if you want people to know where you mean.Related to:
- Historical Travel
Every Day in Istanbul 2 - Eminonu
1. Eminonu (from the Galata Tower, across the Golden Horn)
2. The New Mosque
3. Try a fish sandwich bought from a boat ...
4. ... or come the the bridge to sit down at a restaurant
5. Looking across the Golden Horn to Beyoglu
No matter where you're staying in Istanbul, one part of the city you're bound to find yourself passing through again and again is Eminonu, the ferry terminal area in the Old City by the Galata Bridge, where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus. With bus, tram and ferry stops all here, plus the Spice Market, this is a really busy area, full of life and colour.
The large mosque that sits between the piers and the market is more properly known as the Mosque of the Valide Sultana; but, ever since it was finally completed in the mid 17th century it has been known as the New Mosque - Yeni Camii. Its 66 domes and semi-domes are a well-known feature of the Istanbul skyline. Behind the mosque, the covered Egyptian Bazaar ( aka the Spice Market) is always packed with shoppers and tourists. One corner of the large square between the mosque and the L- shaped arms of the bazaar is given over to plants and pets - if you can deal with seeing creatures in cages, there's every sort of domesticated bird you can imagine to be seen here,and the animals on sale include squirrels, tortoises and even leeches.
Down by the waterside, gaudily dressed men sell fish sandwiches from equally gaudily decorated boats, while the whole length of the lower deck of the Galata Bridge is given over the reaturants selling a wider variety of fish dishes. There's a fabulous view of the Suleymaniye Mosque - another unmistakable feature of the Istanbul skyline from the bridge.
If you're catching a ferry here, watch out for scammers who will try to sell you the necessary tokens (jetons) at a vastly inflated price. You're best to buy the tokens from the official booth; there are unofficial jeton sellers who also sell these necessary tokens at only slightly inflated prices - yes it is confusing, and can be made more so by the crush so, unless you really have to catch THAT ferry at THAT moment, my advice is to just take your time, don't get flustered and buy from the booth, even if it means waiting for the next ferry. All the piers are clearly marked with their destinaton, it's a flat fare for all local trips, Bosphorus and Prince's Islands' cruises are more expensive.
At this point the Golden Horn divides the European side of Istanbul into two distinct areas. To the south, in the Bazaar Quarter and Sultanhamet, Byzantine and Ottoman history is crammed together with bustling markets and higgedly-piggedly streets leading up to the gracious pavilions of the Topkapi Palace set among the shady gardens of Seraglio Point. Across the water, Beyoglu, dominated by the Galata Tower, was where foreigners lived, drawn to the city by both commercial interests and, especially in Ottoman times, the relative freedom offered to minorities. The waterway that divides the two halves was, for centuries, the lifeblood of the city's trade; docks and warehouses lined up on either shore. Nowadays, cruise ships are the biggest vessels to tie up here as they disgorge tourists by the thousands every day of the cruising season.
The Galata Bridge is a great place to take in the city's topography and its unmistakable skyline at any time of day or night. Cross the bridge and climb up to the tower for truly panoramic views.Related to:
- Historical Travel
Day 5 - Istanbul: A museum, mosques and markets
1. Wonderful rugs at the Islamic Arts Museum
2. Greek inscription at the Little Ayasofya
3. Prince for a day
4. Olives galore
5. Uskudat mosque'
If our fourth day in Istanbul had been given over to exploring some obscure corners of the city's long-distant past, Day 5 found us indulging in a pastime that few who come here fail to devote some time to - checking out the city's markets and bazaars, in both Sultanhamet and across on the Asian shore. It was also the first day of travelling as part of a tour group with a guide. Of course, this being Istanbul, there were plenty of other sights along the way, including spending the first part of the morning visiting a museum and a couple of particularly interesting mosques.
The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts was our first stop. Situated on the Hippodrome, across from the Blue Mosque and occupying a 16th century palace built for one of Suleyman the Magnificent's Grand Viziers, the museum features ethnographic displays of bygone days in rural and city Turkish life, and a magnificent collection of Islamic arts including rugs, calligraphy, tiles, ceramics and metalwork. The artifacts are beautifully displayed and lit, with good signage in English as well as Turkish.
A short walk across the bottom of the Hippodrome and down the hill (look out for the arches of the sphendone - the curved end of the Hippodrome) towards the railway line, we first stopped at the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque, one of the famed architect Sinan's earliest works. The very steep slope the mosque occupies posed many difficulties - the resolution is a triumph, the mosques deceptively discreet exterior of pale golden stone opening to a jewel box of Iznik tiles and stained glass.
Further down the hill, the Kucuk Ayasofya Mosque is more than 1000 years older than Sinan's little jewel box. Often referred to as the Little Ayasofya, the mosque was built a few years before its enormous namesake and dedicated to the twin soldier saints, SS Sergius and Bacchus. It too has a restrained exterior, of warm pink brick and stone this time but, instead of the inside being a riot of blue, white and green tiles, here all is delicately carved marble lightly enhanced with faded frescoed borders, remnants of Byzantine church decoration that survive to this day.
An uphill walk through back streets brought us to Constantine's Column, a survivor from the founding celebrations of the New Rome in 330AD. From here it was a downhill walk through the bazaar, not the tourist-tempting Grand Bazaar but rather the place where locals do their everyday shopping, a chaotic mix of street stalls and balconied hans, here a tiled mausoleum, there a shop window full of gold braided white satin suits fit for little princes. You might not find anything here you want to buy but it all feels much more genuine than the bling of the Grand Bazaar.
A stop at Develi in the Spice Market for some of the best baklava ever and then it was down to the waterside to catch a ferry to Kadikoy on the Asian shore. The Friday food market that fills the streets there is fantastic, a feast for the eyes and the nose as well as the palate - and there are plenty of offers to taste as you go - a sliver of cheese, a fat, black olive; a smear of fruit preserve or salty fish pate on some crusty bread. This part of the city is a popular place for young families and professionals to live and is packed with cafes, bars and the sort of shops that serve such a community.
With so much to see and so little time, a stroll through the market, a stop for a very late lunch and then it was onto a bus and head for Uskadar - ill-famed in British history books as Scutari where Florence Nightingale raised her lamp. We came to see one of the classic mosques the quarter is known for - another Sinan achievement. This one, the Iskele Mosque, built for Suleyman's daughter, Mihrimah, the wife of Rustem Pasha, overlooks the water by the ferry landing. A look around the mosque, a ferry ride back to Eminonu and it was time to head back to our hotel and some time out before joining the others in our tour group for an evening Bosphorus cruise to a waterside restaurant.
Next morning would see us rising early to catch the ferry across the Sea of Mamara to Bandirma, on the first leg of the journey that would take us all the way to the country's far eastern borders before we returned to Istanbul for a few more days. We knew we would need them there was still so much we wanted to see, and even then, we would only be scratching the surface of this wonderful city.Related to:
- Arts and Culture
First book your tour ....
Photo: Just a few highlights of Eastern Anatolia
We'd been to Istanbul twice before, three times if you count the day spent there thanks to a 10 hour flight connection, but had a real yen to see much, much more of this fascinating country.
Which part would we choose? The well trodden western Turkey trail or much less -travelled eastern roads? It was the east that drew us.
How would we do it? Independent travel or take a tour? Although we usually do our own thing, the long distances and only fairly recent return of tourists to some areas had us leaning towards a tour. Knowing of a home-grown company with terrific connections and long experience in Turkey who were running their first eastern Anatolia tour at just the time we wanted to go made the decision even easier.
Outcome? Fabulous tour, amazing places, definitely a great way to go.
Some basic advice to anyone considering the same journey?
If at all possible, make sure the tour you choose doesn't pack the days too full - more than once we saw tour groups arrive somewhere after us and leave before us as they moved from place to place on too tight a schedule.
Be prepared for wildly varying hotel standards. Hotel ratings are based purely on the amenities available - factors such as whether they work or not, whether they're well-maintained or not, whether the staff are well-trained or not don't really come into it. Most are fine and you're moving on, one or two less-than-wonderful nights won't hurt you.
Tourism in Eastern Turkey is still in its infancy, and some areas were, for several years, off-limits to tourists because of the dangers posed by political unrest and terrorist actions. The security situation now is such that tourism is once more considered safe but be prepared for a military presence in towns and countryside and don't even think of taking photographs of it.
Go soon - before the rest of the travelling world cottons on to what an fabulous place this region is. The odd shabby hotel and iffy service experience is a small price to pay for the chance to experience all it offers before the crowds arrive and things change forever.Related to:
- Road Trip
Day 1: Magical Istanbul - Mostly just being there
1. A year's supply of Vitamin C
2. Sea of tourists
3. Walk along the Hippodrome
4. Birbidirek Cistern
5. Magic evening view
No visit to Turkey can be considered complete without some time spent in Istanbul. The tour we booked included just 2 full days, bookending our travels around the country - nowhere near enough for us, so we booked ourselves extra days at both the beginning and the end. The city is so big, and there is so much to say about it, it certainly warrants a page of its own. Here I'll simply put a brief overview of each of the days we spent there; anyone who wants more information can check out the reviews over there - any I write and the 8,875 written by VTers before me.
Travelling alone and arriving at 5am from Australia (MrL arrived at 1.30pm from London), I'd booked both an airport pickup and the previous night in our chosen hotel. No waiting around all morning for an afternoon check-in, it was straight to the room, a shower and up to the roof-top terrace for the first of the Sebnem Hotel's fantastic breakfasts. A post-prandial snooze and I was refreshed and revived and ready to go.
First stop, Sultanhamet Square. With the sight of Byzantine Ayasofya and the Ottoman Blue Mosque facing off across the park and the sea of tourists in between, I really knew I had arrived in this legendary city. Constantinople, Stamboul, Istanbul - call it what you will - this is truly one of the great cities of the world. A stroll up Divan Yolu cadessi - the main thoroughfare through the Old City - trams, crowds of tourists and shoppers, cafes, banks - back through steep back streets, along the Hippodrome, lunch in a cafe under the shade of the trees outside the Baths of Roxelana and back to the hotel just as MrL's taxi pulled up on the corner.
Back out to the streets, more walking, a stop for tea (there's always time for tea in Istanbul), the only people in the eerily-empty Bibirdirek Cistern, and back to the hotel for a while before dinner at a rooftop restaurant with a magic view followed by a good night's sleep.
Hardly hitting the ground running. We knew the weeks ahead would be full on; we had loads we wanted to do and see in Istanbul but this first day, taken at a leisurely pace, soaking up the pleasure of simply being there, was a perfect way to begin what was to be a fantastic journey. Anyone with more than a minimal amount of time in the city could do well to follow a similar pattern.Related to:
- Historical Travel
- Arts and Culture
Day 11: Kars afternoon
1. Church of the Apostles
2. Kilim loom in the museum
3. Russian church-turned-mosque
4. Seen around Kars
5. Turkish and Russian houses
Remote and poor it may be, on the tourist map more because of its proximity to the ghost city of Ani than for any reason of its own, and yet - excellent coffee aside - Kars had enough attractions of its own to more than fill the afternoon we spent there before heading off to Ani and east to Dogubayazit next day. By the time we sat down to dinner that night, the sights we had seen had shown us how Seljuks, Armenians and Russians have all left their mark on the city and a walk before dinner had taken us through the old part of town to a garden tea house, providing relaxation for us and entertainment for lots of children.
Our first stop was the small museum, well laid out and naturally lit, the ground floor displaying historical artifacts ranging from the Bronze Age, through Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk and Ottoman eras. Upstairs, an attractive collection of carpets and kilims, costumes and jewellery told of aspects of an Anatolian way of life that continued on through all the comings and goings of foreign masters.
Next stop was a curiosity - a once- Russian Orthodox church, built for Cossack soldiers in the 1880s, now with minarets, inside, in an awkward conversion, a mihrab replacing the iconostasis. This was just one of many Russian buildings in the town, the legacy of forty years of Russian annexation of this part of Turkey from 1878 until 1920. Parts of the city have a distinctly Russian feel to them, with wide, tree-lined streets and solid stone buildings that would not look out of place in any provincial Russian city today.
From the 19th century to the 10th - the basalt Church of the Apostles, completed in 937, its cloverleaf shape, height and conical roof atop the drum typical of Armenian churches everywhere from Yerevan to Isfahan. Part of the building is used as a mosque, the rest is closed and grass grows on the tiles of the roof - maybe one day the restoration of the Christian past we saw in other parts of Turkey will reach Kars. For now though, the twelve apostles that ring the drum gaze out silently, as they have done for over a thousand years.
The Saltuk kalesi (citadel) that looks down on the city was built in the 12th century and, in the way of so many similar citadels, was conquered and pillaged, destroyed and rebuilt by conquerors from Temur to the Russian tsars of the late 19th century. One very-overlooked fact that came out of this visit was the brutal slayings of Muslim Turks and Kurds in this region by Russians and Armenians during these latter years. The kalesi is open every day during daylight hours.
Time was pressing on however and we had a hotel to check in to. By the time that was done there was just enough of the day left to take a walk along the river, through part of the old town and back to the tea house we had noticed across the river from the citadel mound.
Favorite thing: look at the photo of the church and the sculpture of the goose girl (Kars is famous throughout Turkey for its geese). I love the way the sculptor has echoed the shape of the church in the sculpture.
- Road Trip
- Historical Travel
Dolmabahce as original a Bay in the Bosphorous, during the 18th century gratually filled to become the imperial gardens. during the 18th and 19th century the building of the Dolmabahce Palace was completed with 285 rooms, 46 halls and 6 bath and not to forget 68 toilets
the Sultans moved here because the Topkapi Palace lacked any modern luxury.
Dolmabahce could provide all extravagance of modern lifestyle wealth could buy.
the famous Crystal Staircase is build in the form of a horseshoe.Related to:
- Castles and Palaces
Day 3: Istanbul afternoon - off on a quest
2.Rustem Pasha Mosque
3. Tram to Taksim
4. Galata Tower
5. Fresh squeezed juice - delish!
The hunt of a hard-to-find book Byzantine Istanbul - A Self-Guided Tour by Robert van der Graven found us heading for the publisher's office in Beyoglu, the area on the opposite side of the Golden Horn that occupies the high hill above the Galata Bridge. Before we crossed the bridge we took a walk through the Spice Bazaar (aka as the Egyptian Bazaar). Always crowded with shoppers and tourists and crammed with little shops selling every conceivable spice and herb, nut and sweetmeat, perfumes, teas of every variety and a whole lot more besides, this bazaar has the feel of a real Levantine souk - far more so than the Grand Bazaar up the hill. Tucked away in a corner, a stairway leads up to the Rustem Pasha Mosque, considered by mosquephiles everywhere to be the most beautiful mosque in all Istanbul. Its beauty lies in the exquisite Iznik tiles that cover the walls. It was built in 1561 by Sinan, the greatest of Ottoman architect, when the tile-makers of Iznik were at their peak and you couldn't put a price on the interior today. That they are lit by flooding natural light from the larger and more numerous than usual number of clear glass windows adds to the dazzling effect.
If you haven't had lunch yet you could queue up for a fish sandwich from one of the boats tied up by the Galata Bridge - a chunk of bony but tasty fish in a doorstop of bread. The first one I had was cooked over an open brazier on the boat; 21st century health and safety concerns have put an end to that and the fish are cooked elsewhere these days but the sandwiches still taste fine. No sandwich? then walk over the bridge, past the fishermen than line it night and day, and you'll arrive at Karakoy with Beyoglu on the hill above you. You're still in Europe here and in earlier times this was where the foreigners, who came here in great numbers, lived.
It's a very steep walk up to the top of the hill but a short ride in the Tunel (one of the world's oldest underground railways) will take you up in no time. The entrance is just across the square from the end of the bridge. You'll need to buy a jeton from the nearby kiosk to get through the turnstile. Tunel ride over, you're at the start of Istiklal Cadessi, Istanbul's most fashionable street. The kilometre from here to Taksim Square is lined with swish shops, grand consulate buildings, churches of every denomination and cafe-lined passages. A vintage tram runs down the middle so you can walk one way and tram it the other if you like.
With Istklal Cadessi behind you at the top of the Tunel, it's just a short walk to the Galata Tower. You cannot have missed seeing this Istanbul landmark, it has dominated the heights above the Golden Horn for centuries. First built as a Byzantine shipping control tower, the tower as it stands today was built by the Genoese in the mid-14th century. After the conquest it became an Ottoman prison and more recently a fire watchtower. These days, inevitably, it's a tourist attraction with the obligatory restaurant with a view. You don't have to eat here to experience the sweeping panoramic views however, a walkway around the top of the tower allows you to do that - just don't come if you're afraid of heights or you can't take being completely squashed as you shuffle around.
What next? Tea at the historic Pera Palace, the opulently restored grande dame of Istanbul hotels? We only stepped into the foyer to ask the concierge directions to our book publisher - maybe next time we'll stop for tea. Instead, mission accomplished, we headed back down the hill to Karakoy and the tram back to Sultanhamet, stopping for fresh squeezed pomegranate and orange juice from a hole-in-the-wall juice shop on the way.
An hour with a book and the internet back at our hotel, a sunset drink on the terrace and an evening stroll around to an Uzbek restaurant we'd discovered the previous day - another good day.Related to:
- Historical Travel
- Arts and Culture
Day 14: Van - A tale of two citadels
1. Cavustepe's guardian and his castle
2. Urartian script and seeds
3. The Rock of Van
4. Meet the locals or enjoy the view? Which would you do? (Background photo: P. Hoyne)
The name of Mt Ararat is familiar to millions of people all around the world. How many of those millions know anything of the kingdom that gave the mountain its name? Ararat is the Hebrew rendering of Urartu, an Iron Age kingdom, centered around Lake Van, that held sway in these lands of eastern Anatolia from the ninth to the sixth centuries BC. Time and distance kept the Urartian kingdom lost to the world until the early years of the twentieth century and still today very little is known about them despite some quite impressive evidence of their presence, notably huge fortresses such as the Rock of Van (aka Van Kalesi or Van Castle) that dominates the city, and, just 25km away, Cavustepe.
Situated within the city as it is, Van Kalesi, a citadel atop a mighty rock, was always going to be utilized by whoever was in power and consequently very little evidence of the Urartians remains here, though what there is is of great importance ... but more of that later. Our first stop was Cavustepe, not as immediately as impressive perhaps, but, unencumbered with the layers of later occupations and with a deeply knowledgeable guardian, both physically and intellectually accessible.
Built between 762 and 735 BC by King Sadur (whose father built Van castle) Cavustepe (known to the Urartians as Sadurinilli) was only excavated in the 1960s. The present guardian was involved in those excavations and his passion for the site has led to him becoming one of the very few people anywhere who can read the Urartian cuneiform texts, some of which are to be found engraved into the stones of the citadel, something he is pleased to do for any visitors to the site. He will also show them a handful of three thousand year old grain taken from the storage jars still buried in the granaries and, he hopes, sell them some of the small souvenirs most of which feature cuneiform texts carved into black basalt or small animals.
The citadel occupies a long narrow ridge above the fertile Gurpinar plain, some 25 kilometre south of Van. From end to end, it is almost a kilometre long and exploring it properly would take quite a while. Most visitors probably do as we did, climb up to the palace entrance, the Upper Citadel, where the guardian will be waiting, listen to his explanation of the site, examine the various chambers, storerooms, cisterns, the Temple of Haldi and even a royal loo, at this end of the palace and then enjoy the tranquillity that surrounds them - cattle grazing on the plain below where traces of a sophisticated system of canals can still be seen. These were built by the Urartians to supplement the citadel's water supply by bringing water from the surrounding mountains. Those with more time (one of the advantages of traveling independently) may like to walk along the ridge to the Lower Citadel, though there is much less to see here.. However much time you spend at Cavustepe, the still emptiness all around has an atmosphere typical of ancient sites such as this, made all the more potent by the absence of later occupations.
Back in Van, the area surrounding the great citadel on its massive rock is rather different. Shops, a teahouse, a reconstruction of a traditional Van house and a children's playground make it a popular spot for locals and there was quite a steady stream of people crossing the small bridge and making their way to begin the ascent of the Rock. Our guide led us first to the south side of the rock, the only area with any Urartian remains not overlaid with later works. Here rock cut tombs are the burial place of their kings and a large cuneiform inscription on the rock face tells of their exploits. I have to confess I didn't make it as far as the tombs, the steep, rough track defeated me and I returned to the park below where I spent the time waiting for the other in meeting some of the locals. On his return, MrL reported that the tombs were very dark, very empty and very smelly ... others may find them more interesting but it had been a long day. I'm sure the views from the top of the rock are spectacular. Whether I'll ever get back to Van to check them out is debatable, for now I have to be content with the very impressive sight the Rock presents from the bottom and the photos of others that are the reward of making it to the top.Related to:
- Road Trip
- Castles and Palaces
Days 6-8: Western Anatolia - Rugs 'n'ruins
1. From Istanbul to Izmir
2. The Dardanelles
3. Suleymankoy women dyeing wool
4. Forest picnic
5. Aegean sunset
Day 6 saw the beginning of our travels around Turkey - 2 weeks that would take us west to the shores of the Aegean then north, east and south to the Black Sea and within cooee of the borders of Armenia, Iran and Syria. The two and a half days we spent in the west combined some conventional sightseeing (the ancient Greek cities of Assos and Pergamon) with the opportunity to meet and stay with some of the rug weavers involved in the DOBAG project and their families.
The journey began with a early checkout from our Istanbul hotel and a 2 hour ferry ride across the Sea of Marmara to Bandirma on the southern shore of the Sea of Marmara. The long distance ferry leaves from the Yenikapi terminal, on the south side of the Old City, not from Eminonu.
A four hour bus ride took us west a bit, giving us a glimpse of the Dardanelles, and then south as we headed for our first destination - the tiny village of Suleymankoy, the first of two DOBAG villages we were to visit. We watched and learnt as village women demonstrated the various processes the wool must go through to prepare it for the weaver - carding, spinning and dyeing, preparing the warp for the loom and then visited one of the weavers in her home as her hands flew over the loom, skilfully knotting and trimming the rug from a pattern only she could see in her mind's eye.
What followed was quite magic - a picnic lunch in a forest glade, the ground covered with beautiful rugs, all made by the women of Suleymankoy. Needless to say, none of us was in a hurry to get up and go, and with our night's stopping place only 20 kilometres away we were quite content to make it a long lunch break until, stirred by the thought of a dip in the Aegean, we picked ourselves up from the ground and made our way to our first stopping place out of Istanbul, the village of Behramkale, site of the Greek city of Assos.Related to:
- Road Trip
- Arts and Culture
- Historical Travel
Day 8: Orselli to Trabzon
1. Dyed wool drying
2. Rainbow on a loom
3. Skilled hands
4-5. Orselli morning
Where's that? Too small to feature on any tourist map of Turkey, the village is a collection of low stone and cement houses scattered over a mountainside some 60 kilometres north of Izmir, a long way from the beach or the historical sites that draw visitors to this part of Turkey. Instead, the drawcard that brings visitors to Orselli is the work of the village women whose rug-weaving skills date back far longer than anyone can remember.
Village women have been making rugs all over Turkey for centuries, so what makes these rugs so special?
Prized as the completed rugs are by collectors, the money paid to the weavers was always a tiny fraction of the final selling price. The advent of cheap, machine made rugs and chemical dyes made it even harder for the weavers to earn anything like a living from their work and so more and more women abandoned the work - the age-old craft of handmade rugs using natural dyes was almost lost forever. Then, thirty years ago, in this area of Western Anatolia, a German professor and a Turkish university began to work with groups of village weavers to revive all the skills required to produce authentic traditional rugs. Village co-operatives were formed to run every aspect of production, all of which is based within the village. The wool comes from village sheep; with the exception of indigo, which is bought in, the dye pigments are all derived from local plants and made in the village; and the co-operative, having supplied the weavers with both wool and loom, guarantees a proper price to the weaver with a bonus paid for rugs that sell within a year to encourage the maintenance of high standards.
This is the DOBAG project; Orselli is one of the village involved in the project and we were fortunate enough to be on a tour organised by an Australian agent for the project who has been visiting the project villages for more than 15 years. Our itinerary included two visits to villages, Suleymankoy where we watched the dyeing and spinning of the wool as well as weaving and now we were to spend the night in Orselli.
My review of the night we spent in the village is included in the hotel tips for this trip. I won't repeat that here, except to say it was a great night and a great privilege to be invited into people's homes in this way.
Anyone thinking of finding their way to Orselli or any of the DOBAG villages, should be aware that although this is still a rural Turkish village (modcons are few and far between) and the DOBAG Project is an important part of village life, this is not simply an exercise in nostalgia, nor is it a concern to hold on to "tradition", it's a thoroughly modern commercial exercise. Rugs are made because they earn good money, but it's laborious and very time-consuming work. If there were easier ways to earn money, that's what these women would be doing. It is where their children are already heading as the pull of the city increases. Already the number of weavers is falling
After our morning spent in the village it was time to move on with the next part of the tour - Eastern Anatolia. With a late afternoon flight from Izmir to Trabzon booked, it was time for a little R&R. Our Orselli hosts had been able to offer simple ablution facilities - a western-style loo and running cold water. Spending a few hours at a beach holiday camp gave us a chance to swim, take ahot shower, enjoy a simple but delicious lunch and chill out in a shady garden. Then it was off to the airport and our plane to Trabzon.Related to:
- Road Trip
- Arts and Culture
Day 2: Magical Istanbul - Just cruisin'
1: First catch your ferry. (inset: the ferry landing at Eminönü),
2, 3 and 4: Sail under bridges, past yali, fortresses and pretty villages ...
5: ...until you reach Anadolu Kavagi, nestled in a bay below a ruined 14th century fortress.
No visit to Istanbul should pass without some time spent on a boat on the Bosphorus. Whether it's just a short ferry ride or two from one shore to the the other, an organized half or full day excursion complete with guide and large party of other tourists (or something more exclusive, a private cruise perhaps) or doing your own thing for a day is up to you, your inclination, the time at your disposal and the depth of your wallet.
We opted for the very popular cruise run by the public ferry company, Sehir Hatlari. At 25TL for the return trip, it's excellent value. Sailing twice a day (10.30am and 1.30pm, with a midday sailing in high summer) and making several stops along the way until it reaches Anadolu Karvagi, the last village on the Asian side before the Bosphorus opens out into the Black Sea, this trip is very popular with tourists and locals and I would imagine the boats can get very crowded. There's no commentary so if you want to know what you're looking at as you sail along, a good guide book is a handy inclusion in your day pack. We used Eyewitness Travel's excellent guide to Istanbul - with a full 3 double page spreads of maps and photos covering the Lower, Middle and Upper Bosphorus, it was easy to work out what we were looking at as the boat sailed along.
Zig-zagging its way up the Bosphorus, under first the Bosphorus and then the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridges, between the mediaeval Fortresses of Europe and Asia, Ottoman palaces, gracious yali (waterside villas) and numerous pretty little villages, the 10.30am boat arrives at Anadolu Karvagi at midday. With three hours until the return cruise, there is time to climb up the steep hill (taxis available)to the 14th century Genoese fortress, stroll around the little village and enjoy a leisurely lunch by the waterside, before getting the 3pm boat back. If you think that's too big a chunk of the time at your disposal in Istanbul, you can get off at one of the stops along the way and catch a bus or taxi back to the city, but if you want to do the whole trip to the Black Sea you might as well wait for the ferry as it's a very long trip back along the Asian shore by road.
What else did we do with our day? An early morning stroll over the Galata Bridge before catching the ferry, timeout on the rooftop terrace of our hotel before dinner and an after-dinner walk around Sultanhamet that found us exploring the excavations of the Byzantine Great Palace under the Palatium Cafe Restaurant rounded the day out beautifully.Related to:
Every day in Istanbul - Sultanhamet
1. The Empress Zoe hotel - Four Seaons hotel in the background. Inset: excavations of the Great Palace
2. The Egyptian Obelisk
3. Arasta Bazaar
4. Alay Kiosk
5. Sultan Ahmet's fountain
The tips I've written so far have set out how we spent five days in Istanbul, with a brief description of the main attractions of the city as we visited them. Some of the places we went to are already covered in more detail over in my Istanbul pages, others will follow in time but I do seem to have set myself a major task here, so no promises as to when that will be!
Before setting off on the rest of the trip we took around Turkey, there are a few places in Sultanhamet that we passed by so regularly or we spent time at as and when we found we were just ambling around I haven't included them in the descriptions of more purposeful expeditions. Sultanhamet's like that - there is so much of incidental interest all around you, just a few minute's walk will be an sightseeing outing in its own right.
Around our hotel: It took less than 5 minutes to walk from the Sebnem Hotel up to Sultahamet Square. On the way we passed the Empress Zoe Hotel, where we stayed the first time we visited Istanbul. The hotel is partly built into a 15th century hamam, has a lovely central garden as well as rooftop terraces and the decor features some terrific traditional textiles and antiques. A little further up the street, another historic building has been converted to modern use - once an infamous prison, the Four Seasons Hotel is now a byword for luxury, its bright yellow walls a distinctive landmark. Excavations begun during the restoration of the prison revealed large areas of the Byzantine Great Palace and the work begun then has expanded into what is planned to become an archaeological park.
Sultanhamet Square: This is the hub of tourist activity in the Old City. Set between the high domes of the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya, the area is always busy with street stalls and hawkers, crowds milling around, the hop on/hop off bus touts and ticket offices. The metro passes the tourist police offices in the pretty yellow wooden house on the corner of Divan Yolu cadessi, the tourist information office is across the road from that and fleets of taxis wait for customers. There are quiet spots though, fountains playing and benches where you can sit awhile.
The Hippodrome: Running parallel to the north-west side of Sultanhamet Square, the narrow green park was once the centre of Constantinople's public life - the great stadium known as the Hippodrome . Very little remains of the Hippodrome today, though the road encircling the garden that fills the middle almost exactly follows the track the charioteers once raced around. Three pillars at one end are all that remain of a line of such monuments that stood here. Although the Egyptian Obelisk's heiroglyphs are still crisp and clear after 3,500 years, it's probably only a third or so of its original height. Worn though the base it stands on may be, it clearly portrays the emperor presenting a trophy here in the Hippodrome as well as other contemporary scenes. The other two monuments here, the bronze Serpentine Column and the very worn Column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus (actually another Egyptian obelisk of much greater antiquity than the 10th century emperor whose name it carries) are in a far more dilapidated state.
On the other side of the square the Arasta Bazaar dates from the same period as the Blue Mosque the income from the bazaar originally being an important part of the mosque's funding. The shops here mostly sell good quality handcrafts and, if you find (as I do) the Grand Bazaar just too big to cope with, you might enjoy this place more. If shopping's not your thing, another reason to come to the Arasta Bazaar is to visit the excellent Mosaic Museum.
A minute's walk around to the back of the Ayasofya, will bring you to the entrance to the Topkapi Palace - a visit here requires several hours, something we left to do on our return. The fountain of Sultan Ahmet III in front of the gate is covered in gorgeous baroque floral design and calligraphy panels of poetry dedicated to water. This and the pretty little yellow and white Alay Kiosk on the outer wall of the Topkapi that we walked under every day are two of my favourite Ottoman buildings. Catch the metro or walk down the hill past the Alay Kiosk and you'll come to the main train station and the area known as Eminonu ,where you'll find the ferry piers - another area you'll find yourself passing through again and again.Related to:
- Historical Travel
Day 12: The ghosts of Ani (2)
1. Cathedral and mosque
2. Sketch map
3. Broken bridge
4. Across the river
5. Sandtone and basalt
Hat on, sunscreen applied, water bottle filled - Ani is waiting. Through the guard walls of the gateway and there it is, a vast grassy sweep of undulating emptiness dotted here and there with the ruins of once-splendid buildings. Paths lead away from the gate, following what once were city streets, small signs pointing the way to the few remaining buildings and larger ones in Turkish and in English when you reach them give basic information. Whether you follow the more-or-less set trail around the ruins or wander more randomly is up to you - one thing is sure, apart from anyone you came with, the chances of encountering anyone other than one of the site guardians or perhaps a local villager (there is a small hamlet outside the ruins) is remote. Another small party of tourists did arrive while were there. Their schedule was obviously tighter than ours, they arrived and were gone again in no time at all. We stayed for about three hours, nowhere near long enough to explore the whole site, I could have stayed all day but that's a luxury that only an independent traveller with their own transport can afford.
Take the path to the left as you come through the gate and it will take you in a loop around the best preserved buildings. Another track, no doubt once the main road from the gate to the heart of the city, will take you more or less straight down to the largest of the ruins, the cathedral. The longer you spend here, the more the site reveals hidden in the folds of the land and the long grass.
All the buildings that remain are built of large stone blocks in a patchwork of soft red and brown sandstone and black basalt. Grass grows from the roofs, some walls have collapsed completely, steel girders support others. The distances between them give a hint of the size of the city where once 100,000 people lived and the quality of the fine stonework tells of their wealth and sophistication.
The site slopes down to the rim of the steep gorge of the Arpa River. The shattered remains of an ancient bridge can be seen but today there is no way to cross over into Armenia. Once this was all one land, today watchtowers march along the ridge on the Armenian side and the border is firmly closed.Related to:
- Historical Travel
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